If it was up to DJ Semtex, his new book Hip Hop Raised Me would be longer than 498 pages. The U.K. DJ’s adoration for the culture dates back to his early childhood, when Public Enemy‘s 1988 sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back captured his soul. From then on, Semtex (real name John Fairbanks) was enthralled by the audaciousness of hip-hop: MCs were bold with their rhymes, DJs dictated the mood of their audience by just spinning a record. Because of that, Semtex sought out to be a hip-hop DJ in the U.K.
Born in Manchester, Semtex nearly had his dreams derailed at 16 when he contracted Lymphangioma. He then underwent surgery and had his arm amputated. Despite by the life-changing obstacle, Semtex persevered through his love for music and earned his stripes in the early ’90s, when he booked gigs to DJ for De La Soul in Manchester and later hosted Wyclef Jean‘s Carnival party in London. A decade later, he moved to London and expanded his reach exponentially. He netted opening slots for Mos Def, Dead Prez, Jean among other prominent hip-hop figures.
In 2001, Semtex joined BBC Radio 1Xtra??, a digital radio station dedicated to black music. In hopes of bolstering the U.K.’s credibility on the hip-hop front, he gathered up his contacts and landed interviews with many notable rappers, including Jay Z, Kanye West, Eminem Nas, The Roots and more. He has since been with the station for 15 years.
Billboard recently at down with DJ Semtex to discuss his new book Hip Hop Raised Me, his fondest memories of hip-hop, his favorite interview of all-time and why he considered Kanye West this generation’s Michael Jackson.
What inspired your new book Hip Hop Raised Me?
I work with the youth and I realized that there isn’t really [that many] positive stories out there. Originally, I wanted to do a book called Tragedy to Triumph, documenting artists that have been through some kind of tragedy. Like, for instance, Kanye West and 50 Cent who both have been through some traumatic experiences, what the catalyst was that still gave them the strength and the resolve for them to move forward. So, my manager took the idea to a book company and they were like, “Yeah, we love that, but we want you to do a book on hip-hop.” And I was like, I can’t do this because in hip-hop, there’s a lot of people involved. I said there should be like 30 people doing a book on hip hop. So I said no and turned it down.
And then, I was listening to Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” and there’s a line where’s [he says,] “What do you expect when Wu-Tang raised you?” And I was thinking about it. I was raised on Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. Everyone has been influenced by hip-hop at some point. So, the train of thought led to “hip-hop raised me,” and that would be the way to do the book, because everything that I’ve done within hip-hop — from being a DJ on the air and pretty much interviewing everyone except Dr. Dre, to DJ’ing clubs up and down in every continent — I know a lot of things. I wanted to paint the positive stories that don’t necessarily get celebrated from day to day. The turntable changed my life. That’s why I just wanted to do my part and just document the culture.
You grew up on Public Enemy and Chuck D wrote the foreword for Hip Hop Raised Me. What made you decide to tap him to handle that responsibility?
Because [Public Enemy’s] lyrics changed my life. “It takes a nation of millions to hold us back.” It educated me because the education system wasn’t teaching about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Marcus Garvey. It didn’t teach you about unity or humanitarianism. It did with Public Enemy. I felt if there was one person to do a foreword, it [had to] be someone that means something to you. That was Chuck D [for me] so I e-mailed him. I’ve interviewed him before, but he’s a busy guy. I just did it on the off-chance. I just said, “Look, this is what I’m planning to do. I’d be honored if you could do this.” He was like, “No problem.” Within a few weeks, [he got it done]. Even with what he wrote, I was like, “Wow.”
What were some of your fondest memories of hip-hop?
I think definitely anything to do with Kanye. Even the first time I met him, he was mad cocky. He was at the Mixshow Palace Summit in the Dominican Republic, and he was with Don C. He had the Louis V backpack, and was trying to be cool and everything. I was trying to talk to him and he was like, “Yeah, yeah,” whatever kind of thing. Don C was like, “Pass those CDs.” I didn’t realize he was waiting for the visitor request so he could talk to certain people. It was crazy to see that he was out there networking, as well. Then, when I met him again, he was totally different. He was like, “Yo! What’s going on?!”
Anytime I’ve interviewed Jay Z, I learned things. His whole demeanor, his whole perception on the way things work and everything. He talks in parables. Things that he says are like set in stone and it’s unquestionable. I’ve also seen artists for the first time like, we took J.Cole around London. We were walking him around the streets. We couldn’t do that now. You look at where he’s at now, it’s crazy. I met up with him backstage at the Wireless Festival and I didn’t know what to say to him. I was just like, “You’ve done it.” That’s all I could say because from where he was before – and I said this to Elliott Wilson – he’s way more assertive. He’s way more confident. He’s grown.
Same for Joey Bada$$. I hooked up with Joey way before any of this. Most people in New York didn’t even know who he was. I met up with him and [Jonny] Shipes at the hotel. We started talking and he was just a quiet kid. To see the way he’s changed now, he’s, again, in that position of being one of the future great ones. From my own personal experiences, being able to see these artists grow is amazing.
You just touched on some of the iconic figures you’ve interviewed in the industry. Who would you say is your favorite person to interview of all-time?
Jay Z. For me, he’s the greatest of all-time. I think he has that overview — he’s a master of everything that he does. He’s the Mike Jordan of rap. You can look at the way he’s taken things with Tidal, what he’s done with businesses, and what he’s done in music with [his] albums. I should really say Kanye, but you wouldn’t have Kanye, if it wasn’t for Jay.
You started your career as a DJ. How do you feel the word and the meaning has evolved from when you first started to now?
I think the DJ has had a rough journey because in the beginning of hip-hop, it started with Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and so forth. The DJ was part of a group. I got into DJing because I saw Terminator X onstage. The way he was DJing, cutting, and the way he was controlling the crowd, I was just like, “Wow. I want to do that.” Now, it’s all about the MC. I had to evolve. I couldn’t just exist playing records in the club. You got to be able to DJ in a club. You got to be able to DJ onstage with artists. You got to be able to host radio shows and introduce new music. You got to have that understanding and knowledge of all the trends and what’s going on in hip-hop.
I like pretty much most of the stuff that I’ve played, but even with stuff that you might not necessarily get as a DJ, it’s your job to give it to the people and give the people what they want when they want it. It’s about moving the crowd, but also, the way technology has changed, technically, everyone is a DJ now, since streaming services are the new concepts of playlists. But there’s still an art to working a crowd. There’s still an art to leading the crowd, working the music, and anticipating what they want to hear next.
Why do you think rappers in the U.K. have difficulty breaking into the U.S. in comparison to some of its pop artists, like a Sam Smith or an Adele?
I think there’s a couple of elements to it. It’s like selling ice to Eskimos. [The U.S.] is the home of hip hop. I always say to people — even in a country where there’s like 260 million people, there’s seven million rappers. Let’s say, part of that seven million, there’s a couple of thousand in cycle, whether it’s online or booking shows. When you look at that and break it down further, there’s only five that mean anything. That’s Drake, Jay Z, Kanye, Chance The Rapper, and Future. With the kids right now, those are the big names. So, the top five of all-time is Jay Z, Nas, Eminem, Tupac, and Biggie. Now, you have Cole, Kendrick [Lamar], Drake, Chance [The Rapper], Joey [Bada$$] — that’s pretty much my top five.
Think about that. In a country with 260 million people, you’re gonna come over here [to the U.K.]? [Laughs] I think the way to [cross over is] you still got to have the audacity to not give a f–k, basically. That’s what Skepta is doing. The way that Skepta has done it, people gravitate to him. Kanye gravitates to him, Drake gravitates to him, and he doesn’t go out and try to make alliances. He’s making his own presence, his own style, his own genre. He’s the king of his own castle. Maybe, he’s not popping off [in the U.S.], but he’s big in Europe. So, if you look at it like that, does he need to pop over here? It’s a bonus. That’s how you should look at it.
You mention Drake and he’s had an incredible run since the beginning of his career. How long do you think he can sustain his reign for in hip hop?
I think he has 20 years. On top of what he’s got now, he has another 20 years, because he’s consistent with everything that he does. When you look at the history of who’s done this and who’s got to this point, again, it’s only Nas, Jay Z, and Eminem. They’re the only ones that stayed consistent. They’re the only ones that were the best of their class. Every year, they were at it. Every year, there was a concert. Every year, there was a familiarity of what you wanted, and they moved with the times.
Blueprint was a very defining time for Jay because he introduced Just Blaze and Kanye West. They helmed the album. The way Jay blueprinted that moment in time, he was nonchalant on that whole album. He started off with “The Ruler’s Back,” came with “The Takeover,” disrespecting Nas and everything. He made his mark. With songs like “Song Cry” and “Never Change”, he reinvented himself.
Drake can do that easily. There’s mixed views on Views, but he did two of the hardest mixtapes with If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive. They weren’t meant to be albums, they were meant to be mixtapes [but they] are considered albums. [Drake] ain’t stopping anytime soon. He’s clocked the game. You gotta remember, on top of being a rapper and an artist, he was an actor before, so he has that Will Smith thing. 20 years, I put money on that.
There’s currently a wide range of new artists in rap. What are your thoughts on the new wave of rappers today?
I think it’s dope. I think the spectrum of hip-hop is forever expanding. If you like that hardcore street rap, you got Dave East. If you like the Southern thing, 21 Savage. If you want off-the-wall sh-t, Lil Yachty. If you want spiritual, missing that College Dropout vibe and wanting substance, Chance The Rapper.
I think Chance hasn’t even started yet. He hasn’t done his first album yet and he has seven Grammy nominations for a mixtape, so I think Chance is the future. He’s one of the most exciting artists, and he’s a true showman. He brings that musical and theatrical elements to hip-hop, and I haven’t seen anyone do that before. It’s that Chicago rap. He has the spirit of Kanye West in him, and he’s taking that creativity somewhere else. I think it’s great that we have people like Drake, Cole, Kendrick, Chance, and Joey. It’s an amazing time.
You’ve dubbed Kanye West as one of the greatest. What’s your take on his career at the moment?
I think given everything that’s happened, I think you’re gonna hear one of the most exciting albums ever with whatever he decides to do next. You have to think about what’s going on — like, he’s gone through a lot with his issues. I don’t want to speculate. I don’t know the full story but he’s gone through some shit. The one thing that he is good at is channeling emotion and channeling that energy … He’s a true producer. He takes the best of everything that’s around him. I think you could never write him off. Equally, he has his part to play, and he’s going to be around for a long time. He’s one of the greatest. He’s bigger than the position of a rapper. He’s that all-around entertainer. He’s a rapper, producer, creative visionary.
[Look at] the recent tour with how the stage was suspended. It was crazy. It looked like something from the film Mad Max. He made the crowd part of the show. No one has done that. He’s always pushed boundaries. He’s had the hottest shoe — everything. Given what’s happened, you know he’s going to have some crazy things to say. Whatever happened at the house and being in the hospital, there’s going to be some serious music coming. He’s the closest thing that we got to Michael Jackson. Back in the day, you would hear legendary stories about Michael Jackson. Everything that he did was an event and Kanye’s on par with that. The same way Beyoncé is. These are the new mega-stars. While everyone speculates, the one thing that can be guaranteed is the music is going to be amazing.